Political campaigns can turn on a dime sometimes.
There was a time, several months ago, after Louisville businessman Matt Bevin barely survived Kentucky’s Republican primary, when it appeared that the Democratic nominee, Attorney General Jack Conway might win the general election fairly easily.
It would, some thought, be like a Kentucky Wildcat slam-dunk at Rupp Arena.
Nobody’s thinking that anymore.
This is a race.
It’s rather amazing, really, since over the past 44 years only one Republican, Ernie Fletcher, has held the governor’s office in Kentucky; and Fletcher, whose administration was plagued with scandal, was knocked off by the incumbent Democrat Steve Beshear, who is term-limited out this year.
And Bevin, who ran for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination against Sen. Mitch McConnell and was squashed like a bug, barely squeaked out of this year’s four-candidate GOP gubernatorial primary with an 83-vote win over James Comer, out of about 214,000 votes cast.
But, in fact, it’s the only really competitive gubernatorial race in the country, in a year when most of the political junkies around the country are deeply fixated on the 2016 presidential election.
There really hasn’t been much polling in the race lately. At the end of July, the Bluegrass Poll, conducted for Kentucky’s two largest newspapers and two prominent TV stations, showed Conway up by a slim three percentage points. On June 23, Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm, had Bevin up by two percentage points.
But some time ago, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a weekly politics newsletter published by Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, moved the Kentucky governor’s race from the “toss-up” category to “leans Republican.”
“Both national party committees see Kentucky as a winnable race,’’ said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst who is managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Bevin, Kondik said, “is not really a great candidate; and it may be a question of how much of his own money he is willing to spend on this.
“But President Obama is extremely unpopular in Kentucky; and you have the Trump phenomenon going on in the Republican presidential race,’’ Kondik said “It’s a sign of how nationalized politics has gotten even in state races.
Kentucky has, for many years, tended to elect Democrats to statewide offices and Republicans to the presidency and Congressional seats.
A sign that things may be changing in Kentucky politics is the fact that both Bevin and Conway are using President Obama in TV ads. Last week, Bevin released his first TV ad of the general election campaign blasting Conway for supporting Obama policies such as the Affordable Care Act and a plan to limit environmental emissions for businesses.
Conway said he never supported the emissions law. He released his own ad saying that, as attorney general, he took on the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency over proposed limits standards for coal-fired power plants.
Nathan Smith, a long-time Democratic political activist and former vice chairman of the state Democratic party is hosting a fundraiser for Conway and his running mate, Sannie Overly, at Smith’s Ft. Mitchell home. Ticket prices range from $100 to $1,000 and it’s being billed as the Conway campaign’s “final northern Kentucky fundraising reception.”
Smith is convinced Conway will win, even if it turns out to be a very close election.
“Traditionally, this has been a swing state,’’ Smith said. “It’s been very Republican in choosing presidents and members of Congress and very Democratic when it comes to choosing governors and state officeholders.
“Now, Jack Conway has done a good job as attorney general of this state; and I think people recognize that,’’ Smith said. “He has experience that Matt Bevin does not have.’’
The Northern Kentucky counties of Boone, Kenton and Campbell have been heavily Republican for years now, but Smith says he expects a “very light turnout” in Northern Kentucky because there is no enthusiasm – especially among Republicans – for Bevin.
“They don’t see him as one of them,’’ Smith said of Northern Kentucky voters. “And I do not think that, in the end, people are going to trust Matt Bevin’s ability to run this state.”
As you might imagine, Greg Schumate, chairman of the Kenton County Republican Party, does not agree with Smith’s analysis.
President Obama is extremely unpopular in the Bluegrass State, Schumate said, and Conway is carrying that weight on his back.
“What I am seeing in Kentucky is a very stiff, very negative reaction to the President,’’ Schumate said.
“Yes, voters in Kentucky have voted for Democrats in state elections, but philosophically, they relate better to Republicans,’’ Schumate said. “That’s why, if Matt Bevin. He’s the one who seems to have momentum.”
Schumate said Bevin’s acceptance by mainstream Republicans reminds him of 2010, when an upstart tea party-backed candidate for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination named Rand Paul beat the Republican establishment candidate, Trey Grayson.
“Republicans were deeply divided in that primary, just like they were deeply divided in this year’s gubernatorial primary,’’ Schumate said. “But, in the end, they came together to elect Rand Paul. And I see the same thing happening for Matt Bevin.”
Hard to say. This will probably be a close election. More polling is likely to come soon to give some guidance as to where things stand.
Tonight, if the clouds clear, you can look up in the sky and see a total lunar eclipse of a harvest moon – something pretty rare. Almost as rare as a Republican being elected governor of Kentucky. Could this be the year?